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This velvety chicken stew is the ultimate Guatemalan comfort food! Often considered the national dish of Guatemala, pepián de pollo features tender chicken pieces in a lightly-spiced tomato, toasted pumpkin seed and chile sauce.
Aromatic and packed with flavour, this Mayan-inspired stew is perfect for parties and surprisingly easy to make!
Pepián de Pollo – Guatemala’s National Dish
With its roots in Spanish, indigenous and Garifuna cultures, Guatemalan food has a rich and fascinating heritage. Indigenous Mayan stews are one of the backbones of Guatemalan cuisine.
You’ll find the following famous dishes served in traditional restaurants throughout the country:
- pepián de pollo and pepián de res
- jocon de pollo – chicken in green sauce
- kak-ik turkey soup
If you could pick just one of the country’s delicious dishes to sample, pepián is the absolute best Guatemalan food to try!
Depending on the region, it’s the favourite dish for family celebrations and Guatemalan holidays. It’s also popular at cooking classes such as La Tortilla Cooking School in Antigua.
While every version of pepián is slightly different, this pepián de pollo recipe most closely follows the methods I learned from my husband’s cousin Thelma de Valdez who runs a catering company in Guatemala City.
Thelma’s version is very similar to the one taught at La Tortilla Cooking School in Antigua. But, it has a few important variations that I think make a difference in the depth of flavour and smooth texture of this delicious stew.
History of Pepián and Pronunciation
If you’re wondering how to pronounce pepián, it’s “pep–ee-AN” for pepian and “pep-ee-AN – day – PO-yo” for pepián de pollo.
What does pepián mean in English? The name of this traditional Mayan dish doesn’t translate perfectly into English. But pepián likely draws its name from the word pepitoria, an essential ingredient in this dish and in Mayan cuisine overall.
Pepitoria is made of toasted pepita (squash seeds) and sesame seeds ground into a fine powder. The pepitoria both thickens the sauce, creates a smooth texture and adds a deliciously nut-like flavour to the recado (sauce).
While pepián is made primarily of tomatoes, chiles, onions and spices the secret to pepián is the nutty flavour of the pan-roasted sesame and pumpkin seeds in the sauce. It’s pure magic!
Its history dates to pre-colonial times when the Maya cultivated primary crops such as maize, beans, squash, chiles, achiote and tomatoes as the basis of their cuisine.
This version is said to hail from Huehuetenango, the ancestral home of the Mam Maya indigenous peoples, in western Guatemala.
What is the Difference between Pipian and Pepián?
While red pepián sauce is similar to a Mexican mole (where it’s known as pipian or pipian rojo), there are important differences. An authentic Guatemalan pepián rojo features sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds but not necessarily peanuts.
Although red is the most popular colour for Guatemalan pepián, black and yellow variations are also popular. This mole Guatemalteco can feature chicken, pork or beef.
The ultimate comfort food, this Guatemalan recipe is rustic in the simplicity of its ingredients. But the mix of flavours makes it amazing! It’s sure to be a favourite with friends and family.
Scroll down to the recipe card for quantities of ingredients.
- chicken, cut into serving pieces, with skin and fat removed
- fresh tomatoes (Roma)
- chile pasa ( ancho or pasilla), dried with seeds and stem removed
- chile guaque (guajillo), dried with seeds and stem removed
- white onion
- sesame seeds (ajonjoli)
- shelled pumpkin seeds (pepita)
- cinnamon stick
- dried achiote
- corn tortillas or French bread
- salt to taste
- Pre-cooked fresh vegetables such as green beans (stems removed), huisquil (peeled and chopped into large pieces) or potato (peeled and chopped).
How to Make Guatemalan Pepián de Pollo – Step by Step
The technique for the pepián of Guatemala is the same in all variations. The basis of the dish is a recado, which is the sauce in which the meat is served. It’s quite simple to make as there’s no fussing with deep frying or browning!
However, a slightly time-consuming part of this recipe is the charring of the ingredients. This traditional cooking technique is integral to achieving the delicious depth of flavour and aroma common in this and many other Guatemalan dishes.
While pan roasting is most often done in a comal (a clay or metal griddle) a dry skillet is a good substitute.
1. Begin by cutting the chicken into serving-sized pieces and simmering it in 5 cups of water with salt for 30 minutes. Skim off and discard any grey scum that may form while cooking. Drain and reserve the broth for the sauce.
2. Dry roast (toast) the cinnamon stick, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds separately in a dry skillet (with no oil) until browned but not burned. The pumpkin seeds will pop when they’re fully toasted.
3. Dry roast (toast ) two corn tortillas (or a piece of crusty French bread) in the same dry skillet. Remove from pan, pour small amount of water over it to moisten and set aside.
4. Next, char the Roma tomatoes, chiles (stems and seeds removed) and onion over a dry skillet in batches until very well browned.
5. Then, process the toasted sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cinnamon stick in a spice grinder or food processor until a very fine powder. You’ll likely need to pulse it several times to get it fine enough.
6. Add the charred tomatoes, chiles and onion to the food processor. Remove the stem ends but don’t peel the tomatoes or onions. The charred skins add extra flavour and aroma to the sauce.
7. Add the charred tomatoes, chiles and onion to the food processor. Don’t peel the tomatoes as you want the charred skins included in the sauce. If you processed the seed mixture in a spice grinder, add it to the food processor.
When it comes to onion skins, they add a deeper colour to the sauce and, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, also provide vitamins A, C, E, and numerous antioxidants. Use organic veggies and give it a try!
8. Add the achiote, cilantro and a half teaspoon of salt to the mixture. Process for several minutes until very smooth.
9. Add the toasted and soaked corn tortillas (or French bread) and four cups of reserved chicken broth to the tomato and seed mixture and process until very smooth.
10. Pour the sauce into the pot, bring to a low boil. Add the chicken. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes or longer until the sauce is very thick and a deep red colour. Add more water or broth if you prefer a thinner consistency.
11. Add the chopped and pre-cooked vegetables (if using) at the very end.
12. Serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds or finely chopped cilantro, white rice and wedges of fresh avocado on the side.
Tips and Variations on Pepián Guatemalteco
- The most popular vegetables to include in a chicken pepián are green beans, potato and chayote (known as huisquil in Guatemala).
- It’s also possible to make a vegetarian pepián by omitting the chicken and using only vegetables chopped into large pieces.
- Depending on the cook, traditional pepián can be thick like a stew or thin like a soup. So feel free to add extra water if you’d like a thinner version of the dish.
- For convenience, pepián can be made a day in advance and reheated over a low heat.
- This recipe for pepián chapin (a nickname for Guatemalans) can be doubled and tripled as it’s often served as a party food.
- Popular variations include adding chiles, ground black pepper, oregano or tomatillos (miltomates) to the stew.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to three days.
How to Serve Pepián
At lunch, pepián is most often served with white rice, Guatemalan yellow rice, tamalitos de chipilin, homemade tortillas, wedge of avocado. It’s especially good with Guatemalan black beans and rice and a simple green salad.
Even though pepián contains dried chiles, it’s just mildly spicy. To boost the heat factor, serve it with a Guatemalan hot sauce like Picamas. Or try my favourites, Marie Sharp’s Habanero salsa from Belize and homemade chirmol, a charred tomato hot sauce.
Another option is to serve some toasted chiltepin pepper flakes on the side. Then people can add hot peppers to their dish according to their taste preference.
If you make this recipe, please rate it and tag us on Pinterest @atastefortravel and use #atastefortravel. We’d love to see your food photos!
Pepián de Pollo - Chicken Stew in Red Sauce
- spice grinder (optional)
- large pot
- 1 Whole Chicken 4-5 pounds, cut into serving pieces
- 5 cups Water or more as needed
- 2 teaspoon Salt or to taste
- 5 Fresh Tomatoes Roma
- 1 Chile Pasa (Pasilla) dried, seeds and stem removed
- 1 Chile Guaque (Guajillo) seeds and stem removeddried
- 1 White Onion medium
- 1/2 cup Sesame Seeds
- 1/2 cup Shelled Pumpkin Seeds pepitas
- 1 inch Cinnamon Stick
- 1/4 teaspoon Dried Achiote
- 1/2 cup Cilantro
- 2 Corn Tortillas or pieces of French bread
- vegetables (optional) pre-cooked green beans, huisquil (chayote) and potato
- Cut the chicken into serving-sized pieces and simmer it in 5 cups of water (just enough to cover the chicken) with salt for 30 minutes. Skim off and discard any grey scum that may form while cooking. Drain and reserve the broth for the sauce.
- Meanwhile, toast the cinnamon stick, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds separately in the dry skillet (no oil) until browned but not burned. The pumpkin seeds will pop when they're fully toasted.
- Dry roast (toast ) two corn tortillas (or two pieces of crusty French bread) in the same dry skillet, remove from pan, pour small amount of water over to moisten and set aside.
- Char the Roma tomatoes, chiles (seeds and stem removed) and onion over a dry skillet (with no oil) in batches until very well browned.
- Process the toasted seeds and cinnamon stick in a spice grinder or food processor until they are a very fine powder. You'll need to pulse several times to get the mixture fine enough.
- Add the charred tomatoes, chiles and onion to the food processor. You don't need to peel the tomatoes or onions as you want the charred skins included in the sauce.
- If you processed the seed mixture in a spice grinder, add it to the food processor now. Add the achiote, cilantro and a half teaspoon of salt. Process for several minutes until very smooth.
- Add the toasted corn tortillas (or French bread) and four cups of reserved chicken broth to the tomato, spice and seed mixture and process until very smooth.
- Pour the sauce into the pot, bring to a low boil. Add the chicken. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes or longer until the sauce is very thick and a deep red colour. Add more water if you prefer a thinner consistency. Add any chopped, pre-cooked vegetables (if using, see note below) at this time.
- Serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and with white rice and wedges of fresh avocado on the side.
- Popular vegetables to include are green beans, potato and chayote (known as huisquil in Guatemala).
- Another variation includes charred tomatillos along with the red tomatoes.
- It's also possible to make a vegetarian version of pepián by omitting the chicken and using only vegetables chopped into large pieces.
- Depending on the cook, traditional pepián can be thick like a stew or thin like a soup so feel free to add extra water if you'd like a thinner version of the dish.
- Pepián be made in advance, stored in the refrigerator for a day and reheated over a low heat.
- This recipe can be doubled and tripled as it's often served as a party food at birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions.
- Vary the spice level of this dish by reducing or adding more chiles to the sauce.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to three days.
If You Enjoyed this Dish, You’ll Love These Guatemalan Recipes:
- Champurradas – Guatemalan Sesame Seed Cookies
- Tapado – Garifuna Coconut Seafood Soup
- Salpicon de Res – Beef and Mint Salad
- Shrimp Ceviche
- Black Bean Soup – Sopa de Frijol
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Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
Read more about Michele Peterson.
Are the corn tortillas used as a thickener in this recipe? Would it be okay to just use masa harina instead of making corn tortillas just to grind them up again? If so, how much should I use? I usually don’t have stale ones lying around and make them from scratch when I want to eat them.
Hi Helen The best flavour comes from a cooked tortilla that’s been grilled on a comal (or griddle) as the grilling adds a toasty flavour to the pepian sauce that plain masa harina doesn’t have. If you don’t have a leftover tortilla you can substitute a piece of toasted (and then ground finely) French Bread as a thickener.
I recently lived at Ixchel Spanish School in Antigua, Guatemala, and ate pepian at school. I also visited a Culinary Maize School, where we made pepian. This is a great recipe that tastes and looks like my hosts’ versions! Thank you!
Thanks so much for your review of our pepian recipe! It’s one of our family’s favourite Guatemalan dishes. I hope you enjoyed your time in Antigua!
Nice to see such a well constructed and explained recipe. We live in Jocotenago and the best tipica food is at a fairly expensive restaraunt in Antigua. Your article makes me think of trying it at home.
Thanks so much for your nice comment on our pepian recipe. And how cool that you live in Jocotenango…we used to go to Pastores to buy cowboy boots and I always thought it was a beautiful part of Guatemala. And do let me know how it goes if you decide to make some pepian at home!
I love the addition of pumpkin seeds to thicken the sauce, such a delicious family friendly dinner!
Mama Maggie's Kitchen
This dish looks soooooo deliciously good. I wish I could eat that right now!
Jakab & Haley
Looks so good!
This reminds. me of living in San Francisco and going to my favorite Guatemalan restaurant. I can’t wait to make this at home, thanks for the awesome recipe!
Happy to hear this recipe brought back some delicious memories, Emily!